In Bivins v. Douglas, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the Florida probate court’s dismissal of a second amended complaint with prejudice, because the failure of the parties to establish paternity within the four year statute of limitations rendered them unable to establish standing to challenge the trust and removed them from the definition of interested persons under the Florida Probate Code.
The Facts of Bivins v. Douglas
Dr. Marc Bivins, Anabelle Bivins, Lorelei Bivins, and the natural guardians of P.B. (Appellants) sought to invalidate several trust instruments executed by the decedent, Dr. Milton Lee Pearce.
Dr. Bivins argued that he and/or his three daughters are the lineal descendants and sole intestate heirs of Pearce’s intestate estate. He argued that he was born out of wedlock and that his biological mother and his biological father, Pearce, participated in a marriage ceremony after Bivins’ birth and thus Bivins is a descendant of Pearce and one of the natural kindred of Pearce’s family.
Bivins alleged that Pearce’s death vested in his intestate heirs the right to Pearce’s property, and thus the Appellants, as Pearce’s intestate heirs, are affected persons and interested in the Trust. Bivins additionally alleged that his paternity is established and that no further determination is necessary.
The Trust devised Pearce’s fortune to his charitable foundation and certain named individuals. From 2000 until Pearce’s death, Appellants were never included as beneficiaries of Pearce’s Trust.
The Florida probate court dismissed the Appellants’ initial complaint, amended complaint, and the second amended complaint. The second amended complaint was dismissed with prejudice. In doing so, the probate court noted that the second amended complaint, “for the third time, [did] not contain sufficient allegations to support [Appellants’] standing to bring the claims alleged.”
Who Has Standing to Challenge a Trust?
“Standing is a threshold inquiry that must be addressed before considering the merits of a cause of action. To have standing, a would-be litigant must show ‘a direct and articulable interest in the controversy, which will be affected by the outcome of the litigation.’” Cruz v. Cmty. Bank & Tr. of Fla., 277 So. 3d 1095, 1097 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019).
Appellants argue they have standing to contest the Trust because (1) they are Pearce’s intestate heirs; and (2) they are “interested persons” within the meaning of the Florida Trust Code.
No Legal Determination of Paternity = No Standing
First, Appellants asserted that mere statement that Bivins is Pearce’s biological son is sufficient to establish that Bivins is Pearce’s intestate heir. However, the blanket statement that Pearce was the biological father of Bivins, without more, fails to establish Pearce’s paternity. The Florida appellate court reviewed the law regarding establishment of paternity:
Section 95.11(3)(b) of the Florida Statutes imposes a four-year statute of limitations on an “action relating to the determination of paternity, with the time running from the date the child reaches the age of majority.” Thus, in order to qualify as Pearce’s intestate heir, Bivins would have had to establish Pearce’s paternity within the time period allowed by the statute of limitations. Here, the limitations period ran in 1987, i.e., four years after Bivins reached the age of majority when he turned eighteen years old. Because Bivins failed to obtain a judicial declaration of paternity within that period. Bivins’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations.
Bivins also relied on section 732.108, Fla. Stat., in an attempt to establish paternity, which states: “For the purpose of intestate succession . . . a person born out of wedlock is . . . a descendant of his or her father . . . if: (a) [t]he natural parents participated in a marriage ceremony before or after the birth of the person born out of wedlock, even though the attempted marriage is void.”
Bivins argued that he was born out of wedlock and his biological mother and Pearce participated in a marriage ceremony after his birth. However, section 732.108 still requires proof that the marriage was between Bivins’ natural parents, which requires a legal determination of paternity.
Interested Persons Under the Florida Trust Code
Bivins also argued that he had standing to invalidate the Trust because they qualify as “interested persons” under section 731.201(23), Florida Statutes.
Section 731.201(23), Florida Statutes, defines an “interested person” as: “any person who may reasonably be expected to be affected by the outcome of the particular proceeding involved. . . .” The Court dismissed the interested person argument, stating:
Here, Appellants suggest that they will be affected by the outcome of the litigation because they are the intestate recipients of the Trust corpus once the assets pass through intestacy upon the invalidation of the Trust. In so doing, Appellants erroneously equate this case to Richardson v. Richardson, 524 So. 2d 1126 (Fla. 5th DCA 1988), the facts of which are easily distinguishable. Here, Appellants do not qualify as “interested persons” because they are not contingent beneficiaries under the Trust as they were never named beneficiaries in any of the numerous versions of the Trust. Additionally, Appellants’ interest in the Trust corpus, if any, has not already vested, as they do not qualify as contingent beneficiaries. Finally, even if the Trust instruments were deemed void, Appellants could not inherit Pearce’s estate through intestacy given Bivins’s failure to establish paternity within the applicable statute of limitations.
Appellants argue that they should be considered interested persons because they would inherit Pearce’s estate through intestacy if the Trust were invalidated. However, the lack of a declaration of paternity rendered their cause of action barred by the statute of limitations. The Appellants cannot claim that there is a possibility that they will inherit Pearce’s estate under a previous will or the law of intestacy.
To have standing to challenge a trust, you have to have a stake in the outcome – that is, you have to be a beneficiary under a prior document, or the invalidation of the trust must benefit you as an intestate heir. Here, appellants could establish neither. They were not beneficiaries under the prior trust documents, and it was too late under the statute of limitations to establish paternity for Bivins to ever be an intestate heir.
The Florida probate court correctly found that Appellants lack standing to contest the Trust because they are not “interested persons” under the Florida Trust Code. Appellants failure to establish the threshold matter of standing was a complete bar to Appellants’ Florida trust challenge.